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10 ways to get started with 3D printing

By Maureen Yoder
December 30, 2014
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When I first watched a 3D printer in action, I went through a rapid progression of reactions:

  1. I was mesmerized by the repetitive movements and the colorful objects it created. 
  2. I envisioned young students planning and creating 3D objects, then getting motivated to troubleshoot unintentional results.
  3. I noticed that it took forever to create one small object. 
  4. I wondered if the financial investment would be worth the benefits.

As the maker movement has gained momentum and the price of 3D printers has continued to fall over the past year, sales have soared among makers and schools. Educators can't help but be intrigued and inspired. 3D printers, after all, are pretty cool. They put the power to create real-world things into the hands of just about anyone — even young students.

But are they more than just another passing fad? As we all know, coolness alone is not enough to make technology an effective learning and teaching tool. Can these machines really help students develop their creativity, problem solving and STEM skills? Will their use promote the kind of team building and collaboration that will help them in their future endeavors?

Your students will surely be transfixed, as I was, as they watch and use a 3D printer for the first time. But the technology's true potential can only be realized if creative teachers thoughtfully guide their students through the design process, making sure that the novelty does not overshadow the learning.

Think you're up to that task? Here are 10 ideas for jumping into the world of 3D printers and using this innovative technology for real learning.

  1. Read The Invent To Learn Guide to 3D Printing in the Classroom: Recipes for Success. This book by David Thornburg, Norma Thornburg and Sara Armstrong, published in June 2014, incorporates a research-based comprehensive rationale for using 3D printers. It includes step-by-step instructions for creating 18 teacher-tested, replicable classroom projects, including a clock, a fan-powered vehicle and tiles with an M.C. Escher-style pattern. Most important, the book gets at the pedagogy behind using this technology in the classroom: " "Prior to designing the tiles, students need to learn the mathematics of tiling in general, and then figure out how to design, for example, the shape of a bird that can be used to build a tiling pattern with no gaps," " writes Thornburg.
  2. Go to a Maker Faire.  At these live festivals, you and your students can not only observe a 3D printer in action, but even jump in and try one out.  " "Making creates evidence of learning," " said Dale Dougherty, Maker Faire founder, during an EdTekTalk at ISTE 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. Watch the full video to hear his compelling argument for using hands-on projects, such as 3D printer projects, as an alternative to traditional assessment. 
  3. Subscribe to MAKE magazine. This print and online magazine, also founded by Dougherty, is chock full of 3D printer articles, projects, event announcements and other maker activities. 
  4. Visit a Makerspace. Makerspaces, also called hacker spaces, are opening up in museums, schools and storefronts all over the country. Many of them have 3D printers you can try out before making a purchase decision. You can also just observe, take classes, or use their equipment to design and build your own projects, usually for a fee. Find a Makerspace near you in the Makerspace Directory.
  5. Join Become part of this new online community from MAKE, now in beta, and provide your suggestions for how it can serve teachers and students. According to the developers, who have researched what goes into a good community, is " "built by makers for makers and stocked with thousands of lab-tested projects from the editors of MAKE." " The site also provides easy-to-use tools, searchable step-by-step directions and the ability to share your results.
  6. Register for a free educator account at Tinkerine U. This manufacturer of 3D printers runs a pilot program for schools featuring lectures, workshops and special events focused on 3D printing. It provides free online courses for students and teachers and detailed lesson plans, including directions for using 3D printers to create topological maps as well as lenses and mirrors for experimenting with light and reflections. Many more resources are in the works.
  7. Get funding from DonorsChoose. Lack the cash for a 3D printer or a Makerspace in your school? Many teachers have successfully raised donations for classroom technology through this crowdfunding site for public school teachers, which also gives you guidelines and suggestions for finding funding. Seventy percent of projects on DonorsChoose are funded, most for under $1,000, by individuals, companies and foundations.
  8. Attend MakerBot Academy. This STEM education initiative has vowed to put a MakerBot desktop 3D printer in every school in the United States.  How? The academy works with DonorsChoose to assist teachers who are looking for money to purchase 3D printers.
  9. Learn SketchUp. If you are ready to get serious about designing your own 3D projects, you'll need to learn how to use a 3D printer programming language, such as Google's SketchUp. Go to the site to watch video tutorials and participate in forums about the free SketchUp 3D modeling software. SketchUp's 3D Warehouse claims to be the world's biggest repository of free 3D models, and you can sign up for SketchupSchool to find even more video tutorials. 
  10. Wait and see. If you're not the early-adopter type, you might do well to wait a while longer before investing in a 3D printer for your classroom. Even Sylvia Martinez, an enthusiastic promoter of the maker movement, and co-author of Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, cautions, " "I wouldn't spend my last dollar on a 3D printer, because there are many other tools and materials that support making in classrooms in better ways." " 

Of course, that may not be the case for long. Recently I was in a Microsoft store. I stood and watched three preschoolers as they observed a 3D printer creating a yet-to-be-recognizable object. They were completely mesmerized, as if they were looking into a crystal ball.  

Perhaps they were.
Maureen Brown Yoder, Ed.D., is a professor of educational technology at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A former classroom teacher, she currently works with inservice educators and teaches an online course on emerging technologies. She coined the term electronic constructivism and has written extensively on how to thoughtfully and creatively integrate emerging technologies into existing curricula.